I just back from Israel two days ago, and while there’s still so much to unpack in terms of luggages, gifts, emotions, I thought I’d write a post to think about my experience as I get back to my daily routine here in Chicago. The last post I write was about post-travel blues, which I felt right after I got back from Argentina, and it continued on until I hopped on a plane to Israel. When I returned home from Israel, I didn’t feel the same loneliness. I wonder why. While in Israel, I was in a rollercoaster ride of emotions. The history and current situation is heartbreaking, and at the same time, there was so much to marvel at about those people, about that land. It is a land of dreams, resilience, exile, reclamation and miracle. I was touched spiritually, as it is the very land where the foundation of my faith stood. The southernmost countries in South America is a bit farther than Israel and being in the Southern Hemisphere, the climate is reverse of what we have here in North America. The climate in Israel is very much like Southern California, so in a way, I felt like I’ve been there before. I characterize my travel to these two places as a sort of going home. In South America, I was reminded of my old self, the one who was passionate about literature, language, culture, arts, dance and music. In Israel, on many occasions, I felt like I’ve been there– perhaps spiritually, if not physically. Israel was also very rich in culture, and their history, art and the stories of its people are complex; the experience of being in Israel is like an archaeological dig, every corner you turn, it’s as if you uncover another pieces of information, another learning, another perspective of the place. It is perhaps one of the most unique places I’ve ever been to in my life. I’m also very much in awe of the arts and literature that has been produced and continues to exist in this place. (It reinforces my thought about how my own people – Filipinos – need to organize its canon of arts and literature, and how we need to produce art and stories about our culture. This perhaps requires a separate essay, which I will write when I find more time.) I still have to reflect on my experiences in these places. I learned so much in these places, some of them the same, but many are different. More to come on these stories. If I can summarize my experiences in the past three months right now, all I can say is, travel enriches my life so much, it gives me joy, and I am willing to create a life around traveling and exploring the many parts, cultures and stories of this world.
We woke up ready to explore Jerusalem again! We looked at the panoramic view from the Mount of Olives, and took pictures against the backdrop of the Old City, including the Dome of the Rock. Then, we went to the point at the Mount of Olives where it is prophesied that Jesus will arrive during the Second coming. We continued down a road walled with stones, passing by a cemetery, where prophets were laid to rest, then stopped by the Dominus Florit Chapel. We took more pictures of the Dome of the Rock. We continued on to the Garden of Gethsemane, where we saw the place of Jesus’ agony. This event is significant to the Christian faith because it is the point where Jesus asked the Father to turn his fate around. We went into the church and then sat in the courtyard where we read passages from the bible. I was asked to read the passage about how God one day will unite the tribes from the 4 corners of the earth (Isaiah 11:1-16). I wonder how significant this passage is in God’s plan for me—I was given this passage and chosen to read it to our group, and my biggest purchase in this trip was the Jerusalem cross, which is symbolic for it also commemorates the 4 corners of the earth that will unite at one point (Jerusalem). The meaning is an act of going home, and for me, it is quite memorable because the idea and feeling of home is something that holds special meaning for me.
A church is located in the compounds of the Garden of Gethsemane, which is called “The Church of Nations.” After the Garden of Gethsemane, we entered the Old City through Stephen’s Gate, and stopped by the Church of Our Lady, where Mary was born, and where the pool of Bethesda was located. The pool of Bethlehem is a point where Jesus healed the crippled.
We then continued on to the Via Dolores, or the Way of the Cross, the route Jesus took all the way to his crucifixion. Jesus was condemned and flagellated by the Romans, and we saw the point where this happened. We walked from station to station, singing, feeling, and experiencing the site that is the foundation of my salvation.
It was an emotionally heavy experience, especially when we got to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and saw the last 5 stations, including the crucifixion, burial and anointing of Jesus.
We then went to lunch at an Armenian restaurant called Bulghouri. We had Mediterranean food there, chicken kabob, rice, pasta, quinoa, carrots and puff pastry. Then, we made our way to the Western Wall again, this time passing by the Jewish quarter as well as the Muslim quarter. The Jewish quarter consisted of the ruins of a synagogue, and there were also roads where people walked, stopped to chat with each other, hang out, etc. There was also a covered hall filled with shops that sold kippahs, menorahs, mosaic tiles, etc.
At the end of the Jewish quarter stood a threshold into the Muslim quarter, where shops abound with Christian items and a lot more Arabs were outside selling Christian religious items to us. After blocks and blocks of shops, we finally made it to the Western wall. It was great to see the Western Wall during the day too. We then went on to a tour of the Western Wall Tunnels, which was an incredible tour hosted by a Jewish American lady who acted with gestures and passion as she narrated the story of the temple.
After we finished the tour, we went back on to the bus. Before heading back to our hotel, we went back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre because a lot of us didn’t have time to kneel down the anointing stone earlier. On the way to the church, we passed by several shops as we did this morning, since the streets leading to the church was littered with these shops. As we got closer to the church, the more I realize that I don’t have any items to place on the anointing stone to make holy. Many people have scarves with them, which is a common item to place on holy sites. As I was surveying the shops looking for a quick item to buy, I saw this beautiful blue and gold scarf. It was very beautiful, and it caught my eye. I stopped by for a few seconds to quickly buy the scarf, and an Indonesian lady part of our tour stopped by with me to buy one for herself too. When we turned around to resume walking with our group, we realized that our group was nowhere to be found…. they must’ve walked very fast or turned a corner, because our stop to buy the scarves was definitely not more than a minute. Also, after the shuffle of negotiating with the vendor, searching for cash, and needing to do everything quickly so we stick with our group, I realized that the vendor gave me the wrong scarf: the scarf I realized I bought was a blue and white scarf. It was still beautiful, but not as beautiful as the original scarf I had my eye on. I realized that the Indonesian lady did receive the scarf I wanted, and told her that the scarf I originally wanted to purchase was the scarf she now has. I asked is we could exchange, but she declined at that point and said perhaps we could have my scarf exchanged at the shop later. I made peace with the fact that I received a different scarf, and felt gratitude regardless, because I was fortunate enough to have the money to purchase it.
So, we had to find our group. We continued walking the same direction we were walking on, because we were thinking that perhaps they just walked faster than we did, and that we will catch up with them if we picked up our pace. But we walked for a few seconds and I had a feeling that our group did not take that path, because if they did, we would’ve seen them by now. So we took a left on the first chance we could, and thought I saw a group… only to find out the group that I had mistaken for our group had children with them, which our group did not have. So I asked the vendors around for the direction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were given clear directions, but when we got to the point where the church is supposed to be, it was nowhere to be found. So, I asked again. The second vendor whom we asked pointed us to an alley about 5 steps from where we stood, but when I looked toward that direction, on the side there was a banner that said, “Prayers for Omar” which we thought was a Muslim site. I thought, maybe he misinterpreted our question. If I asked a Muslim where the church is, perhaps he would point us to a mosque, because that’s what a church is to them. I looked at this second vendor, then looked back to the banner, and looked back to the vendor and ask him again. The Indonesian lady said we have to get back to the original road we took with the group, but I wasn’t convinced with this idea because we had tried that route and we didn’t find our group. The vendor told the Indonesian lady that the original road she was speaking of will not lead us to the church, and in his eyes he was trying to convince us to trust him because he is from there and he knows where the sites we were looking for stood. So, I took a chance and trusted this vendor, and told the Indonesian lady to follow me. I told myself that if it turned out to be a mosque, we can turn back and head another direction. Then, when we passed a threshold, it was as if the world opened: we were in a brighter, open alley, and the path felt familiar: the church was in fact, at the end of the alley. Yes, we got there!
We entered the church and found the members of our group, who were busy laying out the items on the anointing stone. I thought I would face a group who would be looking at us with contempt for having veered a different direction. But no, they were only paying attention to the site in front of them, and I felt that I just got an out-of-jail card. My mom said she was looking for me and knew I was lost and was worried that they’ll never find me again. She wasn’t mad that I went a different way, she was just relieved that she found me. I chuckled at this and told her that I am used to traveling, and I have a good sense of direction, I’ve been lost before and have always found my way.
We laid our items on the stone, we bowed to the stone, its coolness gave our faces a tingle. I had my small rosary that I’ve had since I was a child, the Jerusalem pendant I bought two days before, and the scarf I had just bought a few minutes before we entered the church. I was content.
We headed back to the bus, this time making sure that I stay as close to the group as possible. The Indonesian lady talked to me as we were walking, and she obliged to exchanging her scarf with mine. What luck I have! I was very pleased that I got the scarf that I originally wanted! I am floored by the blessings and luck I’m finding in Israel!
The Dead Sea was an awesome experience! Right after breakfast, we started driving toward the Dead Sea. We stayed in the vicinity the whole day, completing our day with a swim in the waters of the Dead Sea.
We drove through the Judean desert, and stopped by the Qumran where we watched a movie about the Dead Sea scrolls, as well as looked around the ruins of the location where the high priests and their associates lived, studying the Jewish scriptures and communicating with God. They were the ones who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls. It was beautiful just being there: the rock formations, the ruins of an ancient civilization, all against the backdrop of the Dead Sea, which is so blue, peaceful, and sparkling at a distance.
After Qumran, we went to the Ahava store to buy Dead Sea products. Afterward, we made our way to the oasis of the Eid-Gedi. The Ein-Gedi is an interesting oasis because it is a waterfall in the middle of a desert. The water was cool and nice—it definitely cooled us down on this warm day! The sun felt good on the skin too. The nature walk was uplifting to the spirit as well. I am blessed.
Today was all about Jerusalem. First, we went to see the Church of Visitation, which is perched atop a hill. At the foot of the hill, we made a stop at the well where Mary and Elizabeth met to share the news of their pregnancies—the event when Mary learned of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, which was a miracle given her old age. Mary responded with the phrase, “My soul rejoices in the Lord,” which is now commonly known in the Christian faith as the “Magnificat.” It’s significant because it was at this event that Mary believed in the Lord that she will bear the son of God. We also visited the accompanying church, which was a nice Mediterranean garden on the second level of the compound.
After the Church of Visitation, we went to the Holocaust Museum (Yad Vashem) which illustrated the story of the genocide of Jewish people through different types of media: print, images, audio, video. There were so many people involved in this event—those who died, survived, witnessed the suffering of others. When we think about the Holocaust, we don’t pay too much attention to those who stood at the periphery of the event, the Jewish and non-Jewish people alike who saw the horrific situation happening around them. We also went to the Children’s Memorial, which commemorated the half million children who died in the Holocaust.
We were not able to see Mt. Zion even if it was in our itinerary, because the roads leading to the site were closed because of the protest happening around Jerusalem due to heightened tension in the city. We went on to the Church of St. Peter where St. Peter’s house once stood. St. Peter was Jesus’ rock, on which he built his church. They have now created a church on top of the ruins of his house. Across from his house is a synagogue where Jesus went to worship God. We ate at a restaurant near Capernaum, where several people in my group ate St. Peter’s fish (which was a whole fish fried).
Afterwards, we went to Bethlehem to see the nativity. We went to Shepherd’s Field church, which was the point where the shepherds stood to witness the star signifying the birth of Jesus. It was a very clean and beautiful church, with a light beige façade and fresco paintings on its walls, depicting significant event in Christian faith around the birth of Jesus. The reconstruction of the church was donated by Canada. It was also a great overlooking point of the city of Bethlehem.
Then off we went to the Church of Nativity. Before getting to the plaza, we parked the bus in a parking structure where there were kiosks after kiosks selling religious items to tourists. Our guide told us not to buy from these stores as the items are not local, and are imported from China.
We finally arrived in the plaza and there were so many people! We also passed by a bunch of Palestinian soldiers patrolling the area. These soldiers were carrying guns and controlling traffic, so naturally, it felt a bit tense around the church. There were a lot of tourists like us, aside from locals. Since our group does look different from the locals, we were attracting a lot of vendors trying to sell us religious items. Our guide arranged a group picture to be taken of us, which is a nice souvenir to mark our visit in the area.
We made our way toward the Church of Nativity, which already had a long line spilling out of the Church. The entrance used to be a high door, which you could see from the threshold markers on the wall, but the entrance was reconstructed into a much smaller door, which is significant for two reasons: it compels visitors to bow down as they enter the Church, and it prevents large animals such as horses from entering.
When we entered, we discovered that it’s a massive church, with such high ceilings and an apparent spacious area. However, it felt cramped inside since the church was under construction, and combined with groups and groups of tourists inside, it felt congested. Pillars were supported by wooden bars to hold the cement as it dried. We formed rows of 6 people as we fell in line, and slowly, we made our way to the Nativity scene.
We saw the exact point where Jesus was born, which was marked by a star. We kissed the cool metal that formed the star, and we wiped our scarves over it and around the ground where it laid. I was swept with emotions, as were the rest of the people who humbled themselves in front of the exact location where Jesus was born. I felt a sense of calmness and joy, and luck: how great this opportunity was to get to this very point at this moment in my life. I am grateful, because I know not everyone is so lucky. We then proceeded to the manger, across from the star, where the animals stood when Jesus was born. We stopped by the Catholic Church in the compound (the Church where the nativity scene is located is owned by Greek Orthodox).
Before making our way home, we stopped by a store owned by Christians who live in Palestine. The store sold a lot of expensive items such as solid olive wood that was carved to illustrate the nativity scene. Rosaries, maps, crosses, candles and several other items filled the store. I bought a Jerusalem cross in 14k gold, which I placed in my gold chain right away.
My circadian rhythm in Israel has not caught up with the timezone here. I woke up again today at 3 am and could not sleep anymore after. Our call times are usually around 6-6:30 am everyday, and we have to be in the bus at around 7-8 am to start sightseeing everyday. Today, we went to the Sea of Galilee and took a boat ride to experience its waters. The Sea of Galilee is perhaps one of the most calming seaside area I’ve ever been to, and the boat ride was very pleasant. It is about 600 ft below sea level, and its waters are blue green. It reminds me of the tranquil lake of Hangzhou in China, south of Shanghai, where the distant mountains look enchanting with their light and dark colors, depending on their distance from where the onlookers stand. Today, we were supposed to visit the Church of the Annunciation which we were not able to visit on the first day. We did visit Capernaum, where the ministries of Jesus took place. The site of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, called the Church of Loaves and Fishes was also a destination we went to.
We drove to the Mt. of Beatitudes, where the Sermon on the Mount happened. It was a picture perfect area, with hints of inspiration of Italian villas– brown-orange walls accented with other warm and earthy colors like yellow and green, light stones adding a contrast and amplifies the rays of sunshine that bask the surroundings, further ornamented by colorful flowers and lush vines. We took pictures at the site, and I felt closer to the eight Beatitudes that I want to re-read them and remember the teachings in my Catholic school elementary days.
We then went to Golan Heights to see Caesarea Philippi, or Banias Reserve. There, we learned about how the pagan people worshipped their many Gods. One of them was Pan, the god of nature. We walked around the ruins and learned more about Hellenistic and Roman styles of architecture. This area is also called Hermon Springs, a water source responsible for the vegetation in the area that is otherwise a desert. On the way to this Banias Reserve, we passed by land mines, designated by barbed wires and red triangles drawn on yellow warning signs. We are in the area in Israel bordering Syria and Lebanon, which explains the demarcation via land mines. We left there unscathed, and those signs were a reminder to us that we are in a region where serious conflicts between neighboring countries seems to be part of everyday life.
We woke up ready to start the day and sat for breakfast at the Marina Hotel in Tel Aviv, a hotel right by the Mediterranean Sea in a row alongside chain hotels. I’m glad we were booked in the Marina Hotel as it’s a local hotel, and I’m always for supporting the local economy of the places I travel to. A bonus for us is the artwork by Israeli, Middle Eastern and Russian artists that were installed all over the walls of the hotel. They were impressive paintings across a variety of mediums, from watercolor to acrylic to mixed media. The hotel even had a booklet that listed all the artwork in the hotel, as well as descriptions and artist information.
Our breakfast consisted of a wide range of choices from American (cereal, eggs) to Continental European (pastries) to Israeli (tuna, olives, dates, feta cheese). In Israel, I learned that salad is served during breakfast, and many tourists opt for it, too.
After breakfast, we took pictures around the hotel. Mama, Papa, Tita Evelyn and I walked toward the beachfront and took pictures among the rocks. The sun was up high, people were swimming, surfing, and jogging on the beachfront. The sea was beautiful and blue-green, with waves crashing against the shore, the foam tempting the sand to play, and the huge limestone rocks stationed all around the beach added lightness and brightness that complemented the sunshine. I’m so glad to be here with my parents and relatives!
We went back to the hotel lobby just in time to meet everyone on the tour with us, and we subsequently hopped on the bus. We met our tour guide, Nadav, who started giving us information about what’s in store for us on this trip. He pointed to the map of Israel that he hung on the TV screen infront of the bus, and he told us the direction toward which we were headed as we drove along the highway with Jawad, our bus driver. It was a bus that melded different cultures and religions, a Jewish tour guide, a Muslim driver and a big group of Christians. It was a great situation, with different perspective taken into consideration throughout the trip, and it made for an interesting journey around Israel.
From Tel Aviv, we drove by the Mediterranean coast to go to Caesarea, the ancient port and city from the Byzantine time We learned a few things from the magnificent ruins, from the different styles impressed on statues and stadiums, depending on the era it was built. As depicted in the clothing of statues and key architectural pieces in the place, the Roman style was ostentatious, very detailed and a bit vulgar. The Greek style, while also showing excellent technique for the time period, was a lot more modest and reserved. We learned from our tour guide that while Caesarea existed in the time of Jesus, he was never in this location. Then, the Beybars conquested the place and seized the Romans out. Also, Caesarea was the place where Paul was imprisoned.
After Caesarea, we went to lunch where the Druze people lived, and we had eggplant, olives, salad, breaded chicken, pita and hummus. After lunch, we went to Megiddo, the place where it is believed that the final fight in the Armageddon will take place. This place was built on top of a mountain, and the ruins were made of stones, gray and darker, different looking ones that the ones we saw in Caesarea, which were shimmery and lighter. From Megiddo, we can see the Jezreel valley.
In Megiddo, the city was fortified in a way that allowed soliders to hide in pockets as they prepare for battle or if they were spontaneously attacked. They also built an underground well and aqueduct, a sophisticated water system at the time, so that water would flow from a remote spring all the way into the Megiddo. It is now a UNESCO heritage site. Everything had to be discreet since if people were seen to carry water from a spring far away, it would be a vulnerable point. When we went into this underground well, it was so far below the ground that it was quite scary (35m or 115ft) but we made it through successfully!
Megiddo is also said to be a place that Jesus passed by on his way to Jerusalem for his crucifixion. He talked to the people there, telling them that he was going to be crucified to save them from sins, and it was said that man, woman and child with their animals all joined him in this long walk, creating a trail of people, a crowd, all the way to Jerusalem.
In the afternoon, we drove to the church at Cana for the renewal of the vows among the couples in our group. There were about 10 couples on the trip who renewed their vows. We had a full-length mass for this occasion and we took lots of pictures! Then we went to check-in to our hotel in Nazareth called the Golden Crown, where we also had dinner. The Golden Crown was an interesting hotel, and the ballroom names were derived from the King Arthur’s table. The lobby is on the 5th floor, which is at the street level, so floors 1-4 were technically in the basement. We had buffet dinner consisting of beef, chicken, fish, salad, hummus, pita, lentil soup and an array of sweet pastries as dessert.
We called it a night so we can get rest and prepare for next day’s trip to Sea of Galilee!